I gazed out the window at the
near-vertical rocky wall of the mountainside, not fifty feet from
the right wingtip of the little Cessna.
Looking up through the mist, I could see a hanging glacier
in the valley above us. We
cleared the mountain pass and the earth fell far beneath us as we
soared over rolling tundra-clad slopes.
Dropping down from the dizzying heights, the small 4-seater
plane banked to the right, and a long turquoise lake came into
view. The surrounding
mountains were a blended palette of green and brown and gray, as
dark forests at the bases gave way to the rock and tundra above
the treeline. The
highest peaks were draped in pristine white.
Aloft, we could see no signs of
civilization, just a perfect vista of mountains, valleys, glaciers
and lakes. In fact, we
had seen virtually no signs of human habitation for the last
hundred miles. But
descending and skirting the shoreline, we finally sighted the log
cabin, nestled among the trees beside a curved stretch of rocky
beach. Our float plane
touched down on the choppy surface of the lake, and we coasted in
to the tiny dock in the sheltered cove. We
were here. The
Windsong Wilderness Retreat, on the Upper Twin Lake, Lake Clark
National Park. One
hundred thirty nine miles from Anchorage and probably fifty miles
from the nearest town, and the only privately owned cabin in the
whole Twin Lakes region. Our
home for the next five days.
Windsong Wilderness Retreat.
have always had kind of a fantasy about living in the wilderness,
and now, at least for several days, I was getting the chance to
live the dream. Alaska
is one of the few places left in the world where you can look on
views that few have seen.
It started when my friend Jineen
and I had visited Alaska the first time, back in 2008.
While hiking along a stream, we met up with a fisherman who
told us how he had just spent a week in a cabin on a remote lake
in the wilderness, accessible only by floatplane.
We had thought it sounded amazing, so when it was time to
plan this trip I searched online for such a place, and that is how
I found the Windsong cabin.
researching the trip, I talked to Gary, the owner and builder of
the Windsong Wilderness Retreat.
told us that the cabin had a wood stove for heat and a gas stove
for cooking. There
would be firewood and propane for fuel, and we would get our water
from the lake. He said
the hiking and fishing were great.
There is a motorboat and a canoe.
We would need to bring our own food, sleeping bags and
fishing gear, and he recommended a gun for protection from bears.
We would be totally on our own.
Jineen and I thought this cabin in
the wilderness sounded like heaven.
When I told friends about our travel plans I got a very
mixed reaction; half the people I talked to thought the
trip sounded like the coolest thing ever, and the other half said
we were crazy.
My brother George was one of those who thought the trip
sounded great. He had
been making plans for a fishing trip with some buddies on Kodiak
Island, and it turned out that the timing worked out perfectly for
him to join us at Twin Lakes first.
He volunteered to bring the fishing gear and a gun.
I learned from Gary that Twin
Lakes had been the home of Dick Proenneke, an iconic
Alaskan who built a cabin there in 1968 at the age of 51, and then
lived in it by himself, year-round, for the next thirty years.
He built the cabin and furniture all with hand tools, using
logs and materials he found there at the lake.
He was a naturalist and a photographer, and he lived
lightly off the land, fishing and gathering what he needed, and
only hunting when absolutely necessary.
He documented the building of his cabin and his life at
Twin Lakes both with film and pen; over the years he became
somewhat of a cult hero for his book entitled One Man’s Wilderness and for his nature documentaries.
After reading the book and watching the films, we could
hardly wait to get there. We
hoped to live like Dick Proenneke had, as much as possible, at
least for five days.
George, Jineen and
booked an air taxi to fly us from Anchorage and drop us off at
Twin Lakes, and then pick us up again five days later.
The air taxi owner knew the area and was giving us some
tips on the use of the boat and what to take with us.
He said that the lake was very cold, and we could
refrigerate our food by putting it in the water.
I told him that the owner, Gary, had specifically warned us
against putting any food outside the cabin because it would
attract bears. “Oh,
he’s just over-sensitive about that stuff,” replied the pilot.
“Ever since he and
his girlfriend got mauled by that grizzly.”
Having arrived in Anchorage after
midnight the previous night, we were glad our flight to Twin Lakes
wasn’t until early afternoon.
After breakfast at the hotel, we called a mini-van taxi and
used the morning to shop for food, wine, fishing lures and bear
spray. We rented a
satellite phone for emergencies, and headed to the Lake Hood
of small air charter businesses are based at Lake Hood, and
thousands of tiny float planes line the shore. We arrived at Regal
Air with our luggage and supplies.
Our total weight allotment for the
flight was 900 pounds, including the three of us with all of our
gear and food. We
all needed to take sleeping bags, warm clothes, rain gear, hiking
boots, and camera equipment. George
had also brought fishing tackle for all three of us, his tall
waders, a water purifier, and a borrowed rifle.
It is hard to pack light in such circumstances; George and
I were counting on the fact that Jineen doesn’t weight much in
order to be able to eat. Between
our weight and the baggage, we figured it left us less than 100
pounds for food. Uh-oh,
we might have bought too many groceries.
heaped all of our gear on the large scales by the pier and climbed
on with it - we weighed in at 921.
We had been sweating it, but the air taxi pilot seemed
unconcerned by the overweight; apparently taking off is the big
thing - if they can get the plane in the air with the extra weight
then you are all right. We
stuffed all of our baggage into the little Cessna floatplane, and
climbed in after it.
of blue sky peeked out between sailing clouds, and a light wind
ruffled the surface of the water as we lifted off from the lake.
Our pilot, Craig, had no trouble getting the plane
airborne, and we headed out across Cook Inlet.
Craig was an excellent tour guide, relating several amusing
and possibly true stories about Captain Cook and the Captain of
the Exxon Valdez. The
tidal range in this inlet is an astounding 35 feet; mud flats at
low tide become deep water as the tide rips in with treacherous
speed. Craig pointed
out some dots of white in the water far below us and dropped the
plane lower so we could take a look; it was a pod of pure white
beluga whales, feeding on the salmon.
we were in the mountains, heading into Lake Clark National Park, a
four million acre nature preserve accessible only by air taxi or
boat. Our little plane
wound its way among the peaks, staying beneath the ceiling of
clouds that topped the summits.
Glaciers and ice fields filled the high valleys, and frothy
streams cascaded down the steep mountainsides in long waterfalls
to find the lakes and rivers below.
Craig told us that there are over one hundred thousand
glaciers in Alaska, and from this lofty perspective we could
close and personal with the glaciers as we fly through
Lake Clark Pass.
through Lake Clark Pass, we were treated to close-up views of
rockslides, crevasses and sheer walls of rock, often not more than
fifty feet from our wingtips as we gazed out the windows in awe.
We could see the blue-green ice of glaciers above us, and
each time we rounded the shoulder of another mountain we looked up
into a new hidden valley. The
scenery was beautiful and dramatic - it was worth the whole trip
just for that plane ride.
Upper Twin Lake
from the heights, Twin Lakes stretched before us.
Craig made a pass close to the shore of the upper lake and
pointed out Dick Proenneke’s cabin, now owned by the U.S. Park
Service. Then he swung
in a wide U-turn and landed the floatplane near the opposite
shore, where we could see the Windsong cabin and its outbuildings.
He taxied into the cove, and we scrambled out onto the
small floating dock, which was pitching in the waves and wind.
It was a challenge getting our gear and food onto shore
without either it or us ending up in the lake.
Craig lifted off in the little Cessna, and waggled his
wings to us as he headed down the valley.
We would be totally on our own, until the plane returned
for us five days later.
Twin Lakes is a pair of long deep glacier-fed lakes, set end to
end and joined by a connecting stream. The Windsong Retreat is on
the north shore of the Upper Twin Lake, in the midst of the four
million acres of wilderness that comprise Lake Clark National
Park. There are no roads to this park. In summer small
floatplanes can land on the lakes, and in winter they exchange the
floats for skis and land on the frozen snow-covered lakes, but
during fall freeze-up and spring break-up there is no access.
The cabin sits about a hundred feet from the lake,
surrounded by spruce forest. It
is made from shaped logs with a metal roof.
Above the door hangs a massive set of caribou antlers.
There is a short flight of stairs up to a railed balcony
porch, with a beautiful view through the trees of the lake and the
mountains beyond. In
front of the sturdy front door and the windows lay bear mats; big
doormats covered with a forest of heavy-duty 3-inch nails,
pointing straight upwards. The
large picture window had a thick sheet of plywood bolted over it
to deter bears while the cabin was unoccupied; we removed it
according to directions. We
noticed deep claw marks on the logs beneath the windows on the
side of the cabin.
the lower floor was split between a living room/dining area with a
picture window at the front of the cabin, and the kitchen and
woodstove area to the rear. A
rustic staircase led upstairs to a sleeping loft with beds.
The kitchen had propane-powered lights and stove, and a
sink with a drain, though no running water of course.
There were plenty of cooking and eating utensils, including
an impressive array of heavy iron skillets hanging from a beam.
Following the written directions provided, we turned on the
propane so the lights and stove would work.
There was a woodshed just outside the kitchen window, and a
thermometer on a nearby tree read 42 degrees.
Soon we had a nice fire going in the woodstove.
hundred yards further up the path stood the outhouse.
It was a work of art, complete with Dutch doors, beartrap
door handles, a notebook of reading material (mostly bear jokes)
and a nice view up the mountain.
couldn’t help but notice the large claw marks on the outside of
the bottom door, and some tooth marks around the handle.
Outhouse, and bear mats, which we put out each time we
left the cabin.
We checked out the rest of the property.
Down by the lake a log porch swing was suspended from an
A-frame. There was a
boat fuel storage shed, a shower house, and a high storage cache,
raised on stilts. An
outboard motorboat sat on skids not far from the dock, secured by
a cable with a winch, and there was a canoe nearby as well.
A path, graveled with stones from the beach, led up past
the cabin and the outhouse. There
was a second cabin up the hill with just sleeping quarters, to
accommodate additional guests.
An unfinished third cabin appeared to be under
view from the porch.
was an instruction book in the cabin with directions and
guidelines for using the propane tank, the woodstove, and the
boat. It cautioned us
to be sure to put down the bear mats any time we left the cabin,
and to never, never leave food outside.
The book also charged the guests with two tasks: water the
plants in the flower boxes, and feed the jays.
There was plenty of rain to keep the flowerboxes moist, but
we took the duty of feeding the jays seriously.
The guestbook said their favorite food was pancakes, but
they had to make do with bits of bread that first evening.
We put crumbs on the top of the railing posts, and the
little gray birds would swoop down and grab them, then fly away.
six o'clock we were settled in to the cabin, so we went for a walk
through the woods. We
thought we might hike to the waterfall above the cabin.
Following Gary’s directions in the guestbook we took the
trail above the outhouse, but soon it became very overgrown and
hard to follow. The
faint track seemed to parallel the lakeshore rather than climb up
toward the waterfall, and we realized we must not be on the right
dense forest, mostly spruce, was quiet, primeval even.
Often we passed openings where we could catch a glimpse of
the lake through the trees. Recent
showers left every leaf and twig holding droplets of water, and we
were glad of our rain gear. As
we made our way through blueberry patches and thick undergrowth,
we called out at intervals, “Hello Mr. Bear,” proper etiquette to avoid surprising a bear
and inviting confrontation. We
saw moose tracks and bear scat.
We hiked for close to two hours, but never made it anywhere
near the waterfall.
We took Happy Hour by the lake; sitting in the swing seat and
using a stump as a table, we had cheese and crackers with wine.
We had been warned about mosquitoes, but there were none.
It was a bit too chilly to stay out there for long; back
inside we built up the fire in the woodstove, making the cabin
warm and cozy. We
cooked steaks for dinner, figuring we better have them the first
night as we had no refrigerator.
It was still light at ten o'clock.
Jineen and I went upstairs at bedtime (George was sleeping on the
couch downstairs), we found to our dismay that hot air rises, and
from the wood stove burning downstairs, the loft was about 85
degrees. This was way
beyond cozy. But a few
opened windows soon remedied that, and we went to sleep happily,
anticipating the next day.